The Radio Silence on News

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People to people Inside a Community Radio station
People to people Inside a Community Radio station. Photo: Soumik Mukherjee

In the thick of Gurgaon’s glitzy malls and special economic zones, lies the NCR’s only community radio station. Packing in 22 hours a day of broadcast in Hindi and Haryanvi, Gurgaon Ki Awaaz is a crucial link for the villages of Garhi, Harsaru, Dhankot and hundreds of others lost in haphazard industrialisation. Located in Udyog Vihar, the station reaches factories, the new and old colonies of Gurgaon, villages on both sides of NH-8, even those without road access, in its 15 km radius. It airs issues of development, women’s sexual health, education and local culture, which find little space in mainstream media. Arti Jaiman, who set it up in 2009, believes that the station can contribute immensely to improve local governance and ensure accountability. But this potential goes untapped as the station cannot talk about such issues. Government directives do not allow community radio stations to broadcast news. “Several issues, such as the state of government hospitals, lack of planning and poor infrastructure, concern the communities we reach out to, but we can’t report on them due to the ban on news on community radio,” she says.

This concern was raised at the third National Community Radio Sammelan, held recently to mark the 10th anniversary of community radio in India. To the disappointment of many, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting confirmed that these stations are not permitted to broadcast news. As a stopgap, govthey can re-transmit unedited news from the governmentrun All India Radio.

Under the present guidelines, private radio channels can’t broadcast ‘news’, but can air ‘information’ — news on sports, traffic, weather, cultural events, education, employment and public announcements by local authorities. This effectively blanks out political news. “There is a universal standard definition of news. Why are we trying to circumvent it?” asks Ashish Sen, president of AMARC Asia Pacific, an association of radio broadcasters from over 4,000 community radio stations, federations and community media stakeholders from over 115 countries.

The fight to liberate private radios, from what is commonly being seen as a draconian ban, has been taken up by Common Cause, a New Delhi-based non-profit. This October, after many failed appeals to the I&B Ministry, it filed a public interest petition in the Supreme Court to revoke the ban on private radio channels from current affairs programming. The PIL seeks the implementation of a 1995 judgment (Cricket Association Of Bengal vs Ministry of Information and Broadcasting), which held that airwaves were public property to be used to promote public good and for expressing a plurality of views, opinions and ideas. It ruled that ‘freedom of speech and expression’, guaranteed by Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution, includes the right to access and disseminate information. That also includes the right to communicate through any media: print, electronic or audio-visual. “The present guidelines not only infringe upon the right to free speech but also the right to hearing. The idea of community radio is to produce content relevant to a community, so why eliminate politics and current affairs?” asks Jaiman.

The ministry’s response harps on the absence of an independent regulator at the Central and state levels. “The government is concerned that news will be prone to sensationalism and cause law and order problems,” reasons Ram Bhatt, vice president of Community Forum of India. However, in 2004, the Radio Broadcast Policy Committee recommended the formation of such a body, pending which a non-statutory committee be set up with terms of reference similar to what the regulator would have. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, which had taken over regulatory responsibilities for broadcasting, recommended removing restrictions on broadcast of news. The organisation has followed up on the issue over the years; but, given government inaction, it is considering legal options to take the matter forward.

Though the most accessible and affordable, and with a vast reach, radio is the only medium of mass communication in the country where the government doesn’t just regulate, but also prescribes the kind of programmes to be broadcast. There are no such restrictions on TV or the print media. This system of control means India is perhaps the only democratic country in the world where the dissemination of news on radio remains the monopoly of the government-owned broadcaster.

nupur@tehelka.com

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